In the Middle Ages it was never safe to live on the border between England and Scotland. Even if the two nations weren’t fighting each other, the locals still had to contend with reivers, the archaic name for robbers or plunderers.
The reivers did not discriminate; their victims could be English or Scottish. It was a case of all’s fair in love and war – or thieving.
To protect themselves the local families built pele towers adjacent to the border. These were three- or four-storey mini-fortresses, or keeps, into which they could retreat when they got news of reivers approaching.
The peles of northern England were usually built high on hills allowing wide views along the border valleys. On the parapets were iron baskets in which fires were lit to warn nearby towers of the imminent danger.
Arguably the finest of these buildings is Fatlips Castle atop Minto Crags, above the River Teviot near Hawick in the former county of Roxburgshire. The rectangular pele tower is 8m by 10m with four storeys and an attic surrounded by a parapet walk.
It once belonged to the Earl of Minto, an ancestor of Alban ‘Bull’ Elliot, a First World War hero and the longest-serving mayor of Port Macquarie (1925 to 1936). The Elliot family acquired it in 1705. It was built in the 16th century by members of the Turnbull clan, who were themselves infamous reivers.
It was because of the Turnbulls’ unseemly immoral behaviour that it got its most unusual name. The fellows in the clan were quite chauvenistic. It is said when they visited Fatlips they took advantage of the local women, quoting the Turnbulls’ own tenet “every gentleman, by indefeasible privilege, kisses one of the ladies on entering the ruin”. Legend has it they demanded much more than a kiss from the Minto Crag lassies.
The castle was extensively renovated in 1857, as a shooting lodge and private family museum. It remained in use until the 1960s, when it fell into disrepair and was vandalised. Five years ago, various heritage organisations brought it back to its former glory. Much had been already lost including the attic ceiling, which housed the Elliot crest, and some Canadian artifacts, including horse-drawn sleighs and Inuit (Eskimo) canoes brought to Scotland by former clan members who had British government positions there.
Locals encourage tourism, but it is a tough task to visit. Access is by four-wheel-drive, before a solid hike, then a climb inside the pele tower, which is not for the faint of heart. Visitors can pick up a key at the service station in Denholm at the foot of Minto Crags. Luckily, these days the Scots aren’t too worried about reivers.